Karin Hopkins, Tuskegee – It’s easy for me to begin at the beginning. In this way, the evolution of the relationship unfolds like flowers uncurling as they blossom. And so I begin with my reflections on when and how I discovered that Tuskegee and South Berwick, Maine, had established a Sister City connection.
It was an ordinary day in late 2017 when I stopped in the office of The Tuskegee News to talk about my weekly article. Out of nowhere, Editor Guy Rhodes asked me if I knew a group of people from the East Coast was coming to Tuskegee. I had not heard anything about this visit so he explained. A journalist in South Berwick, he said, had contacted him for help in introducing the Sister City concept to Tuskegee. He had passed the information to Kalaful Williams, who works closely with Tuskegee Mayor Tony Haywood.
At some point, after everybody agreed this relationship should move to the next level, a visit was arranged. I was invited into the planning circle and it was a sweet time for Kalaful and me. We talked often about ideas to make the guests feel welcome. We visited Whippoorwill Vineyards in Notasulga and tasted wines, ultimately purchasing a few bottles for a special Sister City experience involving locally sourced products.
After leaving the winery, we stopped on the side of the road to marvel at the moon. With the sun setting, a pink haze had formed and the moon was a perfect circle of bright whiteness. Was this mesmerizing sight a sign that the Heavens were pleased by the Sister City relationship? By the time our guests arrived in December, Kalaful had coordinated a schedule that gave the visitors an authentic taste of Tuskegee and Macon County.
In addition to writing newspaper commentary, I am executive director of the Tuskegee Area Chamber of Commerce, which hosted “Local Hands” to showcase products and vendors in this community.
On the last day of the visit, Amy Miller and I agreed to do our part to sustain the Sister City connection. We are both journalists who are now applying our skills to this blog. With the current climate in our country, I look forward to writing about experiences that show we can co-exist, address tough issues respectfully and move towards a “More Perfect Union.” And when I think about how I stumbled into this project, it feels like destiny.
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Amy Miller, South Berwick – During a visit to Tuskegee with eight other South Berwick travelers, I met Karin Hopkins and learned quickly that she is open, honest and a person of action. I first saw her at the event she organized to introduce local entrepreneurs, but our relationship really began the next night during a planned dialogue on race relations involving the nine of us and about 15 students, professors, business people, pastors and interested Tuskegee citizens. It was the first time some of the group had discussed race with people not of their own color.
In South Berwick, and northern New England in general, there may be little opportunity to talk about race – or anything else — with African Americans. In Tuskegee, an equally homogenous African American town, many people may not get the opportunity to talk with White people either. At least one Tuskegee University student said this was the first time she had talked openly about race with White people. Conversation, we knew, is an important starting point.
One big difference, of course, is that White people in more rural areas often have limited exposure to the country’s African American population, except through the media. The opposite cannot be said.
The discussion was cordial, with each of us introducing ourselves and those of us from Maine talking about our experience of being in Tuskegee. Each of us remarked on the incredibly warm welcome, and how grateful we were to be there.
At some point Karin challenged us to address our feelings more directly, and acknowledged that she is angry about our country’s history and ongoing legacy. I took her challenge and noted it can be hard for White people to talk about race because they/we may worry we will say the wrong thing, or may feel somehow guilty, even if not personally responsible for historical black oppression. She shot back that guilt is not a useful emotion and doesn’t solve anything.
The visit as a whole was a love fest, in the best sense of the word. Strong friendships were born, and relations between our towns have blossomed. The candid interchange that evening between Karin and me was, I believe, the only moment of our visit with even a hint of controversy. To others in the room this repartee might have been uncomfortable. For us, it was the start of a friendship built on respect and candor, and the launch of our desire to work together to create this column. If we can address differences openly and honestly, I hope, we might also write words that carry some value.
So here we are. Thank you, Karin